Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Warblers on the Rooftops, Thrushes in the Alley April 30, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Neighborhood Habitats,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 8:55 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Our out-of-town bird visitors have been exploring every aspect of Oak Park’s urbanized habitat. The past few days they’ve been partying in the streets. Maybe they got tired of the traffic, because Thursday afternoon we watched warblers on our neighbors’ rooftops. Ethan captured a Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm Warbler in a single view:

Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm Warblers on a neighbor's roof.

From left to right, Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm Warblers on a neighbor's roof. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

They've shoift positions -- now it's Pine, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warbler.

They've shifted positions. Now it's Pine, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warbler. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

By zooming in on the Pine Warbler, we can see it's white wing bars, olive-brown streaks on the side of the breast, and white under its tail and belly.

By zooming in on the Pine Warbler, we can see it's white wing bars, the brown streaks on the side of the breast, and the white under its tail and belly. The Yellow-rumped Warbler's "butter butt" is obscured by the Pine Warbler's head. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

That wasn’t all we saw today. When he was taking out the recycling at about sunset, Aaron saw two Swainson’s Thrushes and a Gray-cheeked Thrush in the alley. Other than Robins, they were the first thrushes we’ve seen on our block since last fall. Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around for photos.

We also got no photos of the Pine Siskins that visited our backyard thistle sock for less than a minute. I watched the female feed for about 20 seconds. She chased off a male Siskin who tried to land beside her, and then she left before the boys made it to the back window. We hadn’t seen Siskins in our backyard since the day before Christmas.

Overall, it was a great day for neighborhood birding, and we were sorry to see it end. We saw or heard 30 species without leaving our block, including seven species of warbler. To see the full list, please visit the eBird page for our yard and block.

The winds are from the southwest tonight — tail winds for any birds that migrate northwards. I wonder which new birds may arrive overnight, and which ones may leave the neighborhood?

 

What’s that Sound? A White-throated Sparrow April 29, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 2:21 pm
Tags: , , , ,

We’ve been hearing a clear, sad, whistling song in our back yards for the past few days, and the neighbors have been asking about it. There are lots of other bird sounds these days, but this one really stands out. There are several variations. One version has the first note lower than the rest, like this recording. Another has a similar melancholy quality but a bit more melody, like this recording.

The bird that sings this song is a small, brownish and grayish sparrow. It looks unremarkable from a distance but has a stunning head if you see it close through stealth or binoculars. It’s called the White-throated Sparrow:

Adult White-throated Sparrows have a white chin, black-and-white cap, and a bit of yellow in front of the eye.

Adult White-throated Sparrows have a white chin, black-and-white cap, and a bit of yellow in front of the eye.

Don’t mistake it for the similar White-crowned Sparrow, which lacks a white chin:

Adult White-crowned Sparrows have a black-and-white cap, but NO white chin and NO yellow in front of the eye. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Adult White-crowned Sparrows have a black-and-white cap, but NO white chin and NO yellow in front of the eye. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Enjoy these migrant sparrows while you can. Soon they will head north to breed.

 

Our First Fledgling Mourning Dove of 2009!

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 8:45 am
Tags: , , ,

The first fledgling Mourning Dove of the year just landed on our back fence. (A fledgling bird is one that just left the nest and is beginning to fly.)

Here's one way you can tell it's a fledgling Mourning Dove and not an adult: The outer tips of the body feathers are fringed with contrasting colors, giving it a scaled look.

Here's one way you can tell it's a fledgling Mourning Dove and not an adult: The outer tips of the feathers are fringed with contrasting colors, giving it a scaled look.

It’s a rough out there for bird families. Cats, possums, and racoons prowl the neighborhood. Blue Jays search for eggs to eat. Cowbirds try to trick other birds into raising baby cowbirds. And this year there’s a Cooper’s Hawk nest only four blocks away. So, we wish all our bird parents, and their young, the best of luck! And then we mostly stand back and watch what happens.

 

Block Party for the Birds: Warblers and Sparrows in the Streets April 27, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 8:13 pm
Tags: , , , ,

It happens every year at about this time: Migrating birds take a day or two off in our neighborhood and hang out in the streets, like a Block Party for the Birds:

Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding on South Elmwood, until the next car comes along.

Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding on South Elmwood Street, until the next car comes along. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Instead of peering up into the leafing-out trees to see warblers, we look down in the gutter:

A male Yellow-rumped Warbler searching for food in the gutter on our street.

A male Yellow-rumped Warbler searching for food in our street's gutter.

Instead of beating the bushes to see native sparrows, we wait patiently until they fly out to the pavement:

Chipping Sparrow taking a bath in the gutter on South Elmwood.

Chipping Sparrow taking a bath in the gutter on South Elmwood Street. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

There were lots warblers and sparrows at our block party, and many more birds were in the streets elsewhere in south Oak Park. Why? We’re guessing it’s because ripening American Elm seeds were knocked to the asphalt by wind and rain, along with many of the bugs that feed on new tree flowers and leaves:

A Yellow-rumped Warbler searches for bugs in a gutter filled with Elm seeds.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler searches for bugs in a gutter filled with elm seeds. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The most abundant warbler species was Yellow-rumped Warbler — the boys counted at least 30 individuals on our block. Palm Warblers were also common in the street — we saw at least a half dozen of them. The best street warbler was an Orange-crowned Warbler, a year bird for us (which would not sit still for a photo). We also saw Pine Warblers and a Northern Waterthrush in trees and on the grass, but not in the street.

The most abundant sparrow on the street was, of course, the House Sparrow, which we hardly count because it’s not native. On our block Chipping Sparrow tied with White-throated Sparrow for the most common native sparrow, but on other blocks White-throated Sparrows won out. Our best street sparrow was a Savannah Sparrow, the first we’ve seen on our block:

We spotted on Savannah Sparrow on the street, the first we had ever seen on our block.

We spotted one Savannah Sparrow on the street, the first we had ever seen on our block. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We also saw a White-crowned Sparrow right before the rain. Our Block Party for the Birds was cut short by that rain about an hour before sunset. Check back on Tuesday afternoon — we may have more photos. Until then, drive carefully! (Maybe next year we’ll get permission to close the street.)

—–

Back yard birds have been pretty great, too, the last few days. Counting both front and back yard, we recorded 22 species on Sunday and 29 species on Monday. But, that’s another post.

We’re also planning at least one more post about our Mad Dash to Missouri.

—–

Note added Wednesday, April 29, 6:40 a.m.:  Tuesday was much colder (mostly upper 40s), and there were few birds on our street for most of the day. Then, as we were preparing to leave for a trip to Columbus Park after school, 7 Yellow-rumped Warblers showed up on the street and nearby sidewalks and even a rooftop.

It seems the pavement party had moved to Columbus Park, although most of the revelers were Palm Warblers. There were several groups of 8 to 10 Palm Warblers on the Park’s asphalt and cinder paths, along with a scattering of Chipping Sparrows and a single Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Note added Wednesday, April 29, 5:30 p.m.: The cold continued today, but I saw at least a few small flocks of birds in the street. One group had a half dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Palm warbler, and a Chipping Sparrow (plus the usual House Sparrows and a Starling).

 

Our Mad Dash to Missouri: Anhingas at Big Oak Tree State Park April 25, 2009

The boys and I just got back from our Mad Dash to Missouri: 1030 miles in 49 hours. We found 3 life birds (Ruff, Swainson’s Warbler, and Barn Owl), thanks to some very helpful Missouri birders who showed us the way to these special birds through the Missouri e-mail list, in person, or by e-mail. We also got about 40 year birds and about 105 trip birds.

But our most surprising find was seen overhead while we were walking the metal boardwalk at Big Oak Tree State Park. We looked up through the trees and saw a flock of at least 15, maybe as many as 20 Anhingas. This helped us realize just how far south we really were. Previously we’ve seen Anhingas only in the Florida Everglades, although Sibley shows their range extending north and west to the Missouri Bootheel.

The flock circled over the board walk at least twice, giving Ethan time to take a few photos with his Sony DSC-H50 camera (15X zoom lens). Here’s one of the photos:

Part of an Anhinga flock flying over the boardwalk at Big Oak Tree State Park, Missouri.

Part of an Anhinga flock flying over the boardwalk at Big Oak Tree State Park, Missouri. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

This enlarged view from the above photo shows the field marks that identify it as an Anhinga: Long kinked neck, pointed bill, and broad tail:

Enlarged image of an Anhinga. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Enlarged image of an Anhinga. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Apparently there are relatively few recent records of this species. A 2003 reference cited on this page says of Anhingas,  “Originally a summer resident of the Bootheel lowlands, but disappeared by the early 20th century and has been casual in MO in recent decades.” Of course, seeing a flock this big at this time of year makes us hope some Anhingas will find suitable nesting habitat in the Bootheel. So we’ve posted these photos and will make the originals available as needed.

By the way, we heard the Swainson’s Warbler at Big Oak Tree State Park at the same place it was reported from last week.

We’ll post some more about our trip on Sunday or Monday. Now it’s time to go to bed!

—-

Note added Sunday, April 26, at 10:25 a.m.: We just got e-mails from Josh Uffman and Charlene Malone, Missouri birders. Josh said that another birder had seen an Anhinga earlier this month at Otter Slough. However, it seems that the flock we saw was the largest group of Anhingas reported for Missouri in more than 100 years! That may be a tribute to the strong south winds we’ve been having the past few days. However, we’re still hoping some Anhinga stick around the Bootheel and nest. Big Oak does have some really great habitat — we’d love to have another excuse to go back.

 

Backyard Ferns: Breaking Through April 23, 2009

Filed under: Plants,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 2:49 pm
Tags: , , , ,

The dead leaves piled up in the back corner of our yard over the winter, but that’s not stopping our backyard ferns:

Fern fiddleheads pushing up through the dead leaves in our garden.

Fern fiddleheads (opening leaves) pushing up through the dead leaves in our garden.

If I remember, they’re Ostrich Ferns. We bought them years ago from a nursery, although they also grow wild in Illinois. Some folks eat the fiddleheads, but don’t tell Ethan — we don’t have all that many.

 

Happy Earth Day! We’re Off to Wonder Works April 22, 2009

The boys and I will spend the morning playing with nature with young visitors to Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park. We’ll be there from 10 a.m. to Noon. I’ll be writing more about our activities later. For now, here’s the text of the handout we’ll have available for caregivers:

Earth Day 2009 at Wonder Works:
Raising Nature-loving Kids

Organized by the Gyllenhaal Family of Oak Park, Illinois

In David Sobel’s new book, Childhood and Nature, he discusses ways that educators and parents can help kids connect with nature. Many adults trace their love of the natural world to childhood play in nature. Sobel’s design principles are inspired by the ways kids play when left alone in wooded settings: “Spend time at a safe, woodsy playground, and you’ll find children (1) making forts and special places; (2) playing hunting and gathering games; (3) shaping small worlds; (4) developing friendships with animals; (5) constructing adventures; (6) descending into fantasies; (7) and following paths and figuring out shortcuts” (Sobel, Childhood and Nature, 2008, page 20).

But, how do you raise nature-loving kids if you live in a densely populated place like Oak Park, where your backyard (if you have one) is not much larger than your living room, and the closest woods is more than a mile away? We’ve been exploring these issues on Neighborhood Nature, our family’s nature blog. (See our post on Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment.)

Today’s Earth Day activities at Wonder Works explore some of the ways families can connect with the nature in their own urbanized neighborhood. They include:

Play in Forts and Dens. Kids love natural places where they can hide and play out fantasies. The Wonder Works tree house is our play fort for today, but you can also build a fort in your back yard using cardboard boxes, fallen branches, or other natural and unnatural objects.

Year ‘Round Water Play. Kids create their own adventures when they “play wet” with plastic dinosaurs, whales, and more. If you leave your plastic pool filled with water all year long, you can play with water and with ice. (This is great in neighborhoods with no natural streams or ponds.)

Build Small Worlds. Make tiny buildings with sticks and bark. (If it’s too muddy outside, then we’ll pretend our homemade play dough is soil.)

Play with Rocks and “Logs.” Load trains and dump trucks with rocks and sticks. Kids can incorporate natural materials into the small worlds they create with their toy versions of transportation technology.

Backyard Quarry. Load up the dump trucks with pebbles, and then haul them around – another example of fantasy play that engages kids with natural materials.

Keep a Pet. Taking care of small wild animals – or domesticated ones – helps kids learn to care for nature. We brought our pet toads as examples, and we show photos of the baby parakeets that Aaron raised.

Enjoy Your Backyard Mammals. Wonder Works staff uses puppets, plastic footprints, and real skins to introduce you to some mammals that may live near your home.

Dig for Bugs. At home you can look for sowbugs, millipedes, worms, and more in your garden. At Wonder Works, Ethan helps you explore soil from their garden, plus some rotten logs and forest soil imported for the day.

Catch Plastic Bugs. Real bugs are great, but fantasy play with plastic bugs and other toys lets kids do things they can’t do in real life.

Search for Birds. Some are common, some are rare – but they’re all wonderful! The Gyllenhaal family shares its passion for birds by showing you some of our projects, and letting kids search for Aaron’s plush bird collection with pretend binoculars.

Salt Your Sandbox. You can take home up to 10 natural treasures from our salted sandbox – then you can salt your sandbox at home with tiny shells and rocks.

Count the Things You Find. This works well with many “nature smart” kids (kids who show a high level of Howard Gardner’s naturalist intelligence). You can count the sandbox treasures. Our family counts birds for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch (as shown in posters we did for our school’s science fair).

Make Nature Crafts. Get creative with shells and other natural objects. We’ve set up a station where you can make a shell collage.

Read Books about Backyard Nature Play. Our book table has examples of books for educators, parents, and children. [We’ll post our reading list later.]

—–

That’s it for now — have a happy Earth Day, and take some time to play outside in nature!